HOUSTON — Early Monday morning, when the World Series left Washington D.C. for Houston, the series’ seven umpires boarded a charter flight to Iowa to bury their friend.
Eric Cooper had been a major league umpire for 24 years. They’d worked the same season-long crews with him. One had worked this year’s Minnesota-New York division series with him. They’d shared long nights on hot fields in front of edgy crowds, the hard lifestyle between those games, and the meetings at home plate to begin the next one.
Coop, as they called him, was 52. He’d died nine days before. A blood clot, believed to be a complication from knee surgery a few days prior, had quieted the laugh, had silenced the frequent encouraging text messages, and had put them on a dawn flight to Des Moines.
In Iowa, they joined some 50 other active big-league umpires, along with retired umpires and other baseball officials, including several men who tend the umpires’ rooms in ballparks. The fraternity is close.
A day later, Lance Barksdale, who’d worked the plate in Sunday night’s World Series Game 5, stood outside the umpires’ room at Minute Maid Park, his eyes red from grief. On their last night together, he’d been at first base and Cooper at second base for Game 3 of the division series in Minneapolis. Cooper was in some pain, as his knee was aching, and he told Barksdale about the surgery, that he’d have it early in the offseason so he’d be ready for spring training and a 25th season.
They’d had breakfast that morning with their wives. When it was done, Barksdale’s wife, Jennifer, said, “Coop, I love you.”
He said, “I love you, too.”
Barksdale was having lunch with his children in Oxford, Mississippi, when he learned Coop was gone.
“He was a lovable person,” Barksdale said. “You could feel like you had the worst game of your life and Coop would send you a text — ‘I bet you shot a hundred tonight! You were great!’ He’d send those all the time, that positive reinforcement.”
He didn’t get that text Sunday night, and the thought of it brought a smile to Barksdale, otherwise near tears.
“And everybody in America would say, ‘Naw, Coop, you’re wrong about that night!’ ” he said.
The World Series assignments arrived not long after he’d last seen Cooper. Barksdale had been chosen for the crew. The text arrived a few minutes later.
“Hey,” it said, “make sure your family gets those Metro cards in D.C. You don’t have me to take care of you.”
Coop looked out for his own.
The umpires and their wives boarded a bus before dawn Monday. Major League Baseball had arranged for a charter flight. They were met in Des Moines by another bus, and in silence rode 25 minutes to the church. At the funeral, Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, spoke, as did veteran umpire Ted Barrett. In the audience were a handful of men who’d umpired with Cooper through the minor leagues as well, among them Mike Everitt, Jim Reynolds and Jeff Nelson.
There were pictures of Cooper in the church, some on the major league fields he loved, others of a very young man in baseball and football uniforms.
“He wanted to be an umpire,” Randy Marsh, MLB’s director of umpiring, said, “from when he was very young.”
The result was a job he loved, around men he loved and, at the end, a room filled with people who loved him back. Shortly after, the seven World Series umpires got back on a bus that took them back to an airport and an airplane that would deliver them to Houston. They arrived mid-evening Monday. By Tuesday night, Barksdale would have right field.
“It puts the game in perspective,” he said. “We don’t know how long we’ll live. Nothing is promised. To be in that church, to look around and see that fraternity, it was unbelievable. Makes you appreciate these times.”
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